A Blessed Event

When I am in Jerusalem I most enjoy davenning at Shira Chadasha. Even though it is an Orthodox synagogue, it is the most progressive Orthodox synagogue there is. Women lead services, read Torah, receive an aliyah, present a devar Torah. The women's section is much larger than the men's and it is behind a very sheer curtain that extends down the length of the room, right over the table from which the Torah is read. I know it might be strange for a Conservative rabbi to pray in an Orthodox synagogue, but I go not for the political statement or to condone the "mechitza" (partition) but for the spirituality. As its name says, it is a new song and there is lots of singing. In fact come to Shaare Tefila on Friday evening and you'll hear the very same tunes - the only difference is that at Shira Chadasha there will be 200 people in attendance!
All of this is by way of introduction to what took place in shul today. The service was as spirited as ever and it was enhanced by one of the Torah readers. An extra aliyah was added so that a young man - I'd say of 13 or 14 - could read Torah. I didn't catch his name, but he has Downs Syndrome.
This Torah reading was remarkable and moving to me for two reasons. First, and I know I may be generalizing here, in Orthodox synagogues in the past only people with "normal" abilities would be able to participate in the service. Anyone with a slight speech impediment - as this young man had - would not be allowed to participate. The words of the Torah have to be heard distinctly so that all can fulfill the mitzvah of the Torah reading. The fact that this young man read today was truly remarkable.
But even more amazing is that he read just like the other Torah readers did. There was no fanfare, there was no prompting from the audience. He just read and went back to his seat. It's possible that it was his mother who had the aliyah while he read and if it was her she had a tear or two. Otherwise, it was a Torah reading just like any other.
Yet that is the point. It continues to be a struggle in the Jewish community for those with different abilities to be totally accepted in the mainstream Jewish community. Many Jewish communities have special needs Jewish classrooms, educational programs, and synagogue committees. All meet with varying degrees of success. Our shul has the ARI (All aRe Included) committee and we sponsor a shabbat to highlight these issues.
In two weeks - February 21 - we will participate in the national Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month with a guest speaker with Asperger Syndrome. It should be an eye-opening and special shabbat and I look forward to the day when, like services today, all will be able to participate in all aspects of Jewish life without a blink of an eye.